Your Pencil Has an Unexpected Story

A brand-new book is diving into the untold history of the most basic school supply. Let's get right to the point.

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There's nothing quite like buying brand new school supplies, and for Caroline Weaver, one tool in general has always stood apart from the rest: the pencil. Weaver is the founder of New York City's specialized pencil shop, CW Pencil Enterprise, where just a few dollars will get you a small but special treasure that comes with the ever-alluring promise of letters to be written, to-do lists to be crossed off, and tests to be passed with flying colors. Now, with her book The Pencil Perfect, she's telling the backstory of the simple writing utensil like it's never been told before.

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"What I've written is an anecdotal history of a really simple yet universally appreciated object." —Caroline Weaver

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"A lot of these things aren't really documented, so it was really interesting to try to figure out the actual truth about so many well-known pencil facts," she says. "The pencil is an object that everyone uses, but nobody really thinks a lot about. It's made out of four materials and it took hundreds of years to make it what it is now, so what I've written is an anecdotal history of a really simple yet universally appreciated object."

Below, Weaver shares a few of her favorite pencil facts.

No. 1: The First Erasers Were Edible

Nowadays, it's not uncommon to find erasers made in fun, food-themed shapes, but the original erasing tools actually were food—breadcrumbs, to be specific. "People used crusty bread or breadcrumbs, because they're abrasive," says Weaver. "Breadcrumbs are absorbent and abrasive—the two things that an eraser needs to be." Gum erasers weren't invented until more than 100 years after the discovery of graphite.

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Magic Rubber Eraser by Koh-I-Noor, $3,

Matomaru-Kun Long Plastic Eraser by Hinodewashi, $2,

No. 2: The OG Yellow Pencil Was Really, Really Fancy

The 1893 Chicago World's Fair debuted many inventions that changed the world forever, like the zipper, the dishwasher, the Ferris wheel, and also—the yellow pencil. "The very end of the pencil, opposite from the tip, was dipped in 18-karat gold," says Weaver. "It was a very expensive, very fancy pencil, and that's why American pencils are yellow."

Goddess #2 Pencil by General Pencil Company, $1,

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Badger #2 Pencil by General Pencil Company, $1,

No. 3: Pencils Have Actually *Never* Been Made of Lead

No, you will not get lead poisoning if you accidentally poke yourself with a pencil, wooden or mechanical. Yes, everyone has been lying to you your whole life. "The reason why people think pencils are made of lead is because when graphite was first discovered in the mid-1600s in England, it resembled lead. So for the longest time, they just called it black lead," says Weaver. "Eventually they figured out graphite actually has a carbon structure closer to diamonds than lead. Still, for hundreds of years, people have assumed pencils are made of lead."

Black Wood 499 Jumbo Pencil by Caran D'Ache, $4,

Majestic Jumbo #2 Pencil by Hester & Cook, $2,

No. 4: Pencils Have Been Made of Some...Interesting Materials

Do the contents of your pencil case resemble anything like this? No? Just me?

Though they might seem like super-simple tools, making a pencil is hard work. The first pencils were simply graphite wrapped in string, but as pencils started being made with wood, a bit of extra work was needed, as well as some unexpected ingredients. "Some of the first American pencils were made with spermaceti, whale sperm, as a binder," says Weaver. "It's kind of gross, but that's what they used before realizing you could make pencils with clay and graphite fired in a kiln, which is called the Conte method."

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Noris Un-Tipped Pencil - HB by Staedtler, $2,

Third School #2 Pencil by Eberhard Faber, $4,

No. 5: One Famous Author Is Responsible for a Major Pencil Invention

As it turns out, the person who you have to thank for removing whale sperm from pencils is none other than transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. Along with his father, John Thoreau, the author made pencil developments that revolutionized the writing instrument. "Legend also has it that Henry David Thoreau invented the pencil grading scale (No. 1, No. 2, etc.)," says Weaver. "He had inherited his family's pencil business, but decided to discontinue it."

Academic Writing 9606 Pencil - HB by Kitaboshi, $1,

Grafik Yellow Pencil - HB by Caran D'Ache, $2,

No. 6: The Best Pencils Come From Japan

Japan is home to plenty of bewildering, impressive inventions (like the selfie stick and square watermelons), so it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that the island nation also creates some of the world's best writing utensils. "Japanese pencils are super-high tech—they have the ability to be dark and smooth but not smudgy, and don't have to be sharpened all the time," says Weaver. "They have 14 coats of paint on average, so they can sometimes cause problems in normal pencil sharpeners."

Camel Pencil - HB by Camel Pencil Company, $2,

Mono KM-KKS - 4B by Tombow, $3,

No. 7: Pencil Caps Were the Original Pop-Up Ads

Metal pencil caps, known as "ferrules," are a distinctly American design, according to Weaver, and when metal supplies were cut down in World War II, the philosophy of mend-and-make-do was taken to a new level. "Ferrules were made out of cardboard or plastic, and on the cardboard ones, people would print tiny, tiny advertisements," she says. So, if you thought it was the advent of the internet that prevented you from living an ad-free life, that's not quite the case.

Midtown White Pencil by Hester & Cook, $2,

Blackwing 602 Pencils (Dozen) by Palomino, $22,

The Pencil Perfect: The Untold Story of a Cultural Icon by Caroline Weaver (Gestalten), $40,

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